The next update comes with new characters and a new location, I promise, but first, there’s time to meet up with a few old friends.
THE CART WAS rickety and uncomfortable as it wobbled and jostled through the streets of Nimbys. Which was probably a blessing for it swiftly rubbed the gloss off Orla’s awe. Nimbys was large and impressive, yes, but once she rolled through its cramped and winding streets she soon realised it wasn’t so very different from Ihra. Houses, no matter what their scale, were still houses. People remained people. Life stayed life. The only thing Orla had never seen before were great mansions, like the ones that loomed over the east side of the city. Not only were they bigger than any other house she had ever seen, they had space around, in front and likely behind too, a vast luxury in a valley as overflowing with life as this one.
She would have asked the captain about them, but the poor man looked twice as uncomfortable as Orla felt. His usually smiling mouth was drawn into a tight line, which grew even tighter every time they jolted down a pothole. His eyes were closed and his jaw clenched as he hissed painfully between his teeth.
Orla looked around but there was nothing in the cart to help him, only crates stamped with the Rider crest. There was no choice for either of them except to hold on and hope the journey would end soon.
It didn’t, although the road did improve slightly as they left the cramp streets and turned onto the steep slope of the cliff at the rear of the city. Climbing high above the rooftops, Orla clung on, afraid that if she let go she would tumble off the back of the cart and roll all the way to the bottom.
As the jostling lessened, the captain opened his eyes and saw her predicament. Smiling, he crooked his arm, inviting Orla to grip onto that instead of the splintered cart bench. “I won’t let you fall,” he promised.
Even though she didn’t want to hurt the poor man any more than he was clearly already hurting, Orla nevertheless seized his forearm. “Thank you,” she whispered, gazing back at the retreating city and swallowing hard. She’d never been scared of heights before, but the ground suddenly seemed so very far away.
They crawled up the slope, the pair of oxen groaning as they dragged the cart and all its contents up the steep path. Orla probably could have walked the distance in half the time, but since the captain likely couldn’t, she stayed put and stared at her feet, trying not to worry about how high up she was.
She was an Ihran, she’d grown up on mountains, she couldn’t be scared of heights. A Rift Rider certainly couldn’t.
Still, when the path finally crested the top of the hill and the way evened out, Orla released a shaky sigh of relief.
Captain Derrain chuckled and eased his arm free of her vice-like grip. “There. We made it.”
Tucking her hands in her lap, ashamed of how she’d clung to him, Orla nodded. They had indeed made it and, with level ground under her once more, Orla was able to look at the view and marvel.
Nimbys was even more impressive from above. The tangled streets tumbled down the valley, where the cathedral seemed to hold them back, protecting them from falling over the edge and into the sea. The same Cloud Sea that glowed pure white beneath a bright winter blue sky. With the rocky edges of the valley framing the view, it looked magnificent. Fluffy, pure, perfect, and utterly unlike the sticky, cold emptiness that Orla had grown used to over the long journey south.
A shadow swept over her, making her shiver and look up. Miryhls. A double handful of them, gliding down to land on the field that stretched over half of the broad cliff top.
Orla blinked. The other half was taken up by the Stratys Palace. Home to the most powerful monarch on the Overworld. The imposing tower of white and gold was rather intimidating, but Orla didn’t waste time looking at it for long. Instead her eyes were drawn to the rather less imposing building tucked close to the valley wall, a sturdy barn squatting by its side.
The Rider office and its eyries; home to the Eastern Rift Rider selection school. Orla’s destination.
The cart rumbled down the path to the office’s front door and creaked to a halt.
“Everybody out,” the carter ordered, and Orla was quick to comply, grabbing her bag and scrambling off the bench.
Captain Derrain was a little slower to follow, but he didn’t complain, even if his great shoulders were stooped and his face racked with pain.
“Derry!” a loud voice boomed, and another huge man engulfed the captain in a hug. “You made it.”
“I did,” the captain agreed, pulling away and grasping the newcomer’s shoulder. “And I brought you a gift.”
Confusion tightened the man’s dark brows and he looked down. Although one eye was covered with a patch, the other fairly danced as the stranger grinned. “Please tell me this new recruit is for us, not Hethanon.”
Orla perked up at her cousin’s name – well, her mother’s cousin’s husband’s brother, but close enough.
“She’s for us,” Derrain said. “Although she is a relation of Hethanon’s. Sort of.”
“No, she’s ours,” the stranger declared, rubbing his hands together. “Do you have a letter of recommendation?”
It took Orla a moment to realise the man with the eye patch was talking to her. “I…”
“Here.” Captain Derrain opened his jacket and drew out a folded piece of parchment. “I wrote it myself.”
“Excellent,” the stranger almost purred, then crooked a finger at Orla. “Come with me, new student, and let’s sign you in.” He picked up her bag and swung it over one massive shoulder, holding open the door of the office for her. “I’m Stirla by the way, but you can call me captain.” Winking, he ushered her inside.
* * *
THEY RODE IN silence. Sinking into the well padded cushions of the backward-facing seat, Taryn tried not to be too grateful for the comfort over the rough Nimbys streets, but it was hard. It was a long walk from the docks to the Rider offices, including the long, arduous climb on the cliff path. She’d been prepared to do it, was perfectly capable of it, but still, it was nice not to have to. Especially when the alternative was a carriage like this.
The earl shifted on the seat opposite and Taryn studied the woman before her. Once known as Lady Milluqua Kilpapan, oldest daughter of the old earl and much beloved by society, Taryn hadn’t even known the woman existed until her brother married the youngest Kilpapan daughter. When Mhysra swept into their lives, her sister and mother had come too. Formidable women, the Kilpapans. Milluqua was the only female earl in all Imercian, and her mother was her countess. It wasn’t how things were done, but the Kilpapans weren’t known for sticking to society’s rules. Not when they worked so well without them.
As Earl Kilpapan, Milluqua wasn’t just one of the most powerful women in the country, she was amongst the most powerful nobles. She oversaw several thriving estates, owned a dozen mines and had recently built a number of new manufactories. The Kilpapan family had always been powerful, but under Milluqua they were unstoppable. Especially as her mother was responsible for running one of the most successful trade fleets in the world.
Taryn was rather intimidated by the Kilpapans, not that she would ever admit it. So when she met the earl’s eye, she lifted her chin defiantly and prepared to receive a lecture.
“I trust you will stay with us at Kilpapan House during your stay,” the earl said, throwing Taryn off guard.
“I…” She couldn’t think of what to say. Instinct said to refuse. She wanted to do this in secret and not draw attention to who she was. To escape notice.
“Unless, of course, you would prefer to stay at the palace.”
Taryn’s teeth clicked closed. Technically she supposed she could have stayed at the palace. Her oldest brother, Crown Prince Henryn, would welcome her, even if her father did not, but that would hardly fit her plan to evade notice. But if she didn’t stay at the palace and she refused the earl’s offer, where else could she go? The selection school didn’t supply accommodation for its students. It offered nothing but training.
She met the earl’s knowing eyes and tilted her head, ever so slightly. “I would be honoured.”
Milluqua nodded, not smiling, yet somehow exuding smugness. “We can find space in the mews, if you like. That’s where Derry used to stay.”
Taryn ground her teeth, knowing she was being mocked. “Wherever you put me will be fine,” she said, barely restraining a growl.
They sat in silence for a long moment, until the carriage rocked to a halt. “I will see you at dinner,” the earl commanded, as a footman opened the door.
Taryn wanted to refuse, wanted to stamp her foot and tell the irritating woman where she could stick her dinner and her mockery and especially her offers of accommodation. But, despite everything, Taryn was a princess. She had been raised to be polite.
She dipped her head. “I am all anticipation,” she muttered, scrambling out of the carriage and accepting her bag from the footman.
“As am I,” the earl assured her through the lowered window. “Don’t be late. Your brother is most eager to see you again.”
“Which brother?” Taryn asked, but the window shut with a snap. The smirking earl waved a pale-gloved hand as the carriage rolled away, leaving Taryn fuming and worried. She had two brothers; one who lived in Nimbys, one who didn’t. Yet, somehow, Taryn just knew it wasn’t Henryn she would meet over the silverware that night.
Swearing, she turned, and swore again when she realised the blasted earl had dropped her at the bottom of the cliff instead of taking her to the top.
Cursing under her breath, she lifted her bag onto her back, refusing to be beaten. The sooner she signed up to the Riders, the sooner she could leave her whole family – especially those related by marriage – far, far behind. Smiling in anticipation of that beautiful day, she started to climb.
~ Next Chapter ~
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